KAMPALA – I was going to let it go, not wanting to be yet another writer commenting on the Charlie Hebdo attack and the related issue of human rights, specifically freedom of religion and freedom of speech. And while here in Kampala, the murders of several Muslim clerics is a big case, back on my own continent, violence seems to be almost as present.
This home-grown violent extremist killed two and injured five, disrupting a free-speech conference, killing Finn Noergaard, after which he shot and killed economist Dan Uzan outside of a synagogue. He was chased and killed later by the Danish police. It is not that Omar El-Hussein deserves to be written about, however, there seems to be a fundamental difficulty European nation-states face, in the shape of these radicalised gunmen. And this is an issue that definitely deserved the attention of the figurative pen.
And although I am relieved the reactions are mostly limited to shock, disbelief and sympathy for the victims and their close relations instead of a violent outrage that demands revenge, the question remains how a democracy like Denmark or France should react to these atrocities, especially because they penetrate to the very heart of their democratic values. The populist (American) reaction, usually phrased along the lines of ‘bomb them, keep bombing them, bomb them again and again‘, or the triumph of those who see these events as a direct consequence of the ‘Islamification’ of Europe, are an insult to the very core values these violent extremists are challenging.
In my article on violent extremism, I argued that reactions demanding revenge in any form or shape only provides terrorist leaders with more ideological ammunition enabling them to further their cause. Mr. El-Hussein may have been a ‘lone gunman’ as they refer to these people nowadays, however his old classmates apparently remarked that Omar was a loner who liked to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict and was ‘not afraid to voice a hatred of Jews‘, so his ideological baggage was similar to that of some of the more organised forms of violent extremism.
Before proceeding to the core point of this article, which revolves around the question what the correct reaction to these violent acts might be, I would like to elaborate a bit upon these ideological stances, and perhaps problematize my previous article on this topic. There, I claimed that violent extremism is justified by the abuse of ideology, in this case, by the abuse of the religion of Muhammed. However, the radicalisation of people like Omar most certainly have an ideological component that serves a function beyond abuse.
My theoretical trajectory would be that Omar, being a petty criminal, experienced cultural disenfranchisement, discrimination, and feelings of rejection, frustration, and anger as a result. The suffering and marginalisation of the Palestine people may have been a way for Mr. El-Hussein to identify and connect with the people living in what once was Palestine. Again, it could have been the other way around, where his political or religious interpretation of the Israel-Palestine conflict caused him to distance himself from a European hegemony that does little (although more and more) to address the atrocities commited by the state of Israel, including the occupying of the Gaza strip and the illegal settlements in the Westbank. For now, there is no way of knowing this, although I do think that understanding the radicalisation of young people like Omar is one of the key-solutions to these acts of violence.
Can I try to understand the trails of thought described above, then? I don’t know whether I could, and me being a highly educated, heterosexual male with a light-toned skin, born in Western Europe, I can make bold statements all I want because after all, it is very easy to for me to exclaim them. For me, I can at least pretend to be able to empathise with, say, the Palestine people living under Israeli occupation in the Gaza strip. It is not surprising to me that some of these people resorted to the only form of violence available to them (which is what we call terrorism). But, Omar El-Hussein did not live in the Middle-East. He was born and raised in Denmark, which I have been told is a lovely country. Unfortunately, even in lovely countries like Denmark, suspicion and xenophobia are growing like wild weeds, strangling tolerance and understanding. I can at least imagine he identified with his (religious) brethren elsewhere, and was suffering for their suffering. I do not know whether Omar genuinely concerned himself with his brethren, or whether these discussions he had with the classmates who spoke out recently were mere politicised forms of his own anger. We may never know.
Was his anger justified, then? Mind you, no sensible person has ever defended cold-blooded murder, and that is not what I am attempting to do here. As Bill Maher once pointed out during as a new rule in his TV talk show Real Time, that after bombing yet another Muslim country, we should really stop asking ourselves why they hate us, -a statement critics like Noam Chomsky agree with (although he phrased it slightly more eloquent of course). The argument I am making here is that considering the power relations in this world, the way we, as the Western World, engage with the majority of the Oriental countries, it really should not be surprising that young angry people radicalise over these stately behaviours.
We have a mouthful to say about infringement of human rights, the atrocities, and these unforgivable acts of violence when they are commited on our own soil, or at least when Western citizens are targeted and/or killed. At the same time, we conveniently shut up about the millions of displaced, disenfranchised people living in refugee camps as human waste, the human rights violations that do not directly affect us, the people that were affected by our global efforts to battle terrorism, for instance the countless number of Muslims that were killed by terrorists. And even if we may have something to say about all this, we give implicit consent to a capitalist system which allows (Western) corporations to exploit these socio-political instabilities in order to provide us with sneakers and smartphones.
Which brings us back around to Omar, and the correct response to a direct attack on our democratic values. Firstly, we should start having a conversation about the ideological stances these radicalised people have, and wonder whether there is a legitimate and justified complaint to be found. If we want to be so proud of our freedoms, then let’s make sure that we do not only uphold them in our own societies, but also make sure that we do not (directly or indirectly) prevent any other human being from having these fundamental human rights.
Secondly, (…) (see part II).